Saturday, December 29, 2012

When Jesus messed up

We only have one story in the Bible about Jesus as a child. Only one. And from that one story, we learn that Jesus was capable of messing up. He was with his parents in Jerusalem for the Passover. No doubt, they were traveling along with a group of other pilgrims from Nazareth as they began the long journey home again. It’s not surprising that a twelve-year-old child might not be holding hands with his parents in that situation. He was off with his friends or other family members. At least, that’s what  Mary and Joseph assumed. But after traveling for a day, they realized that Jesus wasn’t with them. Where on earth could he be? They could only assume that he must be back in Jerusalem. So, they retraced their steps.

This was probably one of those occasions when they didn’t know whether to throw their arms around their son and weep tears of joy when they found him, or read him the riot act for worrying them so much. They were clearly miffed at him and Mary let him know it. “What is the matter with you, Jesus? You had us worried to death!”

Jesus, totally insensitive to his mother’s feelings, gave a smart-aleck response: “Chill, folks! Didn’t you realize that I would be here in my Father’s house?” It’s as if to say, one of us has a problem here, Mom and Dad, and it’s not me! I can imagine that didn’t go down too well. There’s that commandment about honoring your parents, and Jesus has clearly violated it.

So his parents took him by the hand and marched him right back to Nazareth. And we don’t hear another peep from him for nearly twenty years, when he appears in the wilderness to be anointed for his public ministry in the waters of the Jordan River.

Only Luke gives us this little story about Jesus’ childhood, and I’m so glad he did. Because it helps us to see what it meant for Jesus to be human and grow up as we all do. We like to say that Jesus was perfect, meaning he never made any mistakes or did anything wrong. But from the get-go, we read that that wasn’t so. In fact, when the Bible says that Jesus was perfect that’s not what it means. Perfection has more to do with being whole, or complete. The perfection of Jesus was that he lived into God’s purpose for him in its entirety. It may have been that as he was discovering what that was, he couldn’t tear himself away from the temple when he was a boy. But in the process, he hurt his parents, and he broke an important commandment.

The Bible doesn’t tell us any more than this about Jesus’ childhood. Instead, Luke summarizes those years in one simple verse: "Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. And that's all we need to know. Jesus grew up. As the years passed, he grew wiser. He learned through times of joy and times of sorrow, through his successes and through his failures. Yes, sometimes he messed up. It's the only way he could have learned. Jesus grew the way we all do.  

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

How to honor God (at Christmastime or anytime)

For as long as people have been able to stand upright, they have been debating the nature of God. Is God vengeful? Does he punish those who sin against him? Does he demand payment in return for his mercy? Or is God capricious? Does he just allow random things to happen to us because he can, or even worse, because he doesn’t care? The Hebrew scriptures bear witness to the way that God’s people have struggled to understand the nature of God through the centuries. Within its pages we get every possible interpretation of God, from an angry tyrant to a tender lover. And it’s downright confusing.

God decided to clear up the confusion. He did this by revealing himself to us in a very remarkable way. He took all the guess-work out of it. As John’s gospel tells us:  “No one has ever seen God. But it is God the Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” So, if you want to know what God is like, look at the evidence. Exhibit A: Jesus.  And let there be no doubt about it, God is love. Yes, love. That’s what God is.

Of course, God is pure love, not the kind of stuff that poses as love in our very human, self-serving understanding of love.  So often, we talk of love and act in ways that have nothing to do with love at all. It’s about us. We give to others because it feels good for us. Or we love another person because we so desperately want them to love us back. The love of God is just the opposite.

We can see God’s love both in the manger and on the cross. There is no regard for the self. It’s not self-protective love. It’s not comfort-seeking love. It’s not love that plays it safe. It’s love that risks everything. It’s bold. It’s courageous. It’s love that knows no limits. Love that gives all, without holding back. That’s the way God so loved the world. That’s the way God showed his love for the world in Jesus. That’s how we know that God is love.

There really is only one way to truly honor the birth of the Christ child at Christmas. And that is to love in a way that reflects the one who is love. Don’t worship him and think that’s enough, because it isn’t. In fact, Jesus never asked people to worship him. He asked them to follow him. We do that in the way we live our lives. We do that when our lives are spent in love.

Certainly, we can never love as God does. Our human attempts fall short of that kind of love. And yet, the love of God that took on human form in Jesus is still incarnate in this world. Through human beings like us, we catch glimpses of a love that transcends our self-protective, needy behavior that so often seems to have its way with us. The love of God shines through us, despite ourselves. For some people, it seems to happen more often than it does for others. But we’re all capable of reflecting God’s love in our lives. We all have our God moments.

Not too long ago, in 1993, Isaac Schnitzer was a five-year-old boy living in Billings, Montana. On the first night of Hanukkah he lit the candle on his menorah, and placed it in his bedroom window. That night someone threw a cinder block through the window and shattered it. When the family went to the authorities to report the incident, they were told, if you don’t want that to happen again, you’re going to have to stop displaying Jewish symbols in your windows. (As if they were responsible for the violence that had been committed against them.)
Two days later, the director of the Montana Association of Churches contacted the pastor at the First Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ and asked if the church members would be willing to display menorahs in their own windows. Well, the pastor not only printed out paper menorahs for his congregation, but he also called some other pastors in town and they did the same. One store manager put a sign up in his store that said: “Not in our town. No hate. No violence. Peace on Earth.” On December 8, the town newspaper ran an editorial asking the people of Billings to display menorahs in their windows. Thousands of menorahs were then provided by businesses in town and the newspaper itself included a full-page menorah for people to display.

When the Schnitzer family drove around their town, they saw menorahs on houses, storefronts and billboards. Little Isaac said he didn’t know so many people were Jewish. His mother responded, “They’re not all Jewish, but they’re all our friends.”

That Christmas, 10,000 homes in Billings, Montana proudly displayed menorahs in their windows. Ironically, in displaying this Jewish symbol, as a community they honored the Christ child in the best way possible -- by acting boldly, in the face of hatred, with love.  

Reflecting the love of God in our lives can mean making a grand gesture that is so much bigger than ourselves. Like fostering a child who faces extraordinary challenges in life. Or caring for an aging parent who can no longer remember your name. Or finally making peace with someone who has hurt you deeply and doesn’t deserve your forgiveness.

But it doesn’t take a grand gesture to allow God’s love to shine through you. It can happen when you offer a simple word of kindness to someone who is feeling discouraged and beaten down. It can come through a telephone call to someone you know is alone. God’s love shines through you when you muster the courage to stand up for those who are in no position speak for themselves. Or when you bother to inconvenience yourself for the sake of someone else, knowing you have nothing to gain for yourself. Perhaps it’s a person you’ve never met. Maybe someone who hasn’t even been born yet, but will inhabit this planet long after you’re gone. Or it might mean encountering another person who isn’t anything like you and realizing you have every reason to judge them, but choosing to love instead.  

How will you honor the Christ this Christmas? How will you follow in the way of the one who is love? 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Mary’s Song (I hope you weren’t expecting a lullaby)

The first time she appeared on the T.V. show “Britain’s Got Talent”, when she came out on the stage the judges looked down, stifling their giggles. People in the audience weren’t so kind; they  laughed out loud. The sight of this woman was so ridiculous that everyone assumed it was a gag. She was well past her prime, verging on downright old, very plain looking in the face, and dumpy in the body. Dressed like a bag lady, the only thing missing was the bag. Nobody took her seriously. Until she started singing. All of a sudden, from this very unlikely source, you heard the voice of an angel. By the time Susan Boyle finished “I Dreamed a Dream”, those who had been laughing at her were crying. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Everyone who heard her learned that when you judge another person based on outward appearances, you’d better be prepared to be wrong. Sometimes, the person from whom you expect the least will surprise you with something astonishing.

That same kind of astonishment certainly proves to be true for Mary’s song in Luke’s gospel. It often gets lost on us because we’ve heard it so many times before. But if we can imagine hearing it for the first time, this is not the song you would expect from the lips of a poor girl, barely a teenager, whose whole world has just fallen apart. You would expect her to blubber like a baby, or maybe to cry out to God for deliverance. But you would never expect her to sing these amazing words of power and strength.

The occasion that prompted Mary’s song is a meeting between two women. Both of them were pregnant with a child who was announced by an angel. But beyond that, their similarities end.   

Elizabeth has waited her whole life for a child. She’s been barren and she and her husband are past the age of expecting one.  She stands in the line of other mothers we know in the Bible who were also barren: Sarah, Rachel, Hannah. All of them ended up becoming great matriarchs of Israel’s faith. Elizabeth is thrilled to be counted among them. After all these years of hoping and praying for a child, now, in her old age, the impossible has happened. She is overjoyed!

This is not the case with Mary. She hasn't waited her whole life for a child like Elizabeth has. She's just a young woman, a teenager, and she's not even married yet. She hasn’t been dreaming about a baby; she's been dreaming about her wedding day. Pregnancy is the last thing she expects, or even wants. God comes into her life and turns everything upside down. There is no precedent for this. It’s distressing.

Luke tells us that Mary was in a hurry when she left Nazareth and headed for the hills. And it’s no wonder. She is pregnant and unwed. She has disgraced her family and her fiancĂ©e. No one wants to have a thing to do with her. A woman in Mary’s position might well have been stoned to death, or maybe even burned. She has to get away. So she runs.

Now, Mary has a relative who lives outside of town, and that’s where she decides to take refuge. But how will her cousin Elizabeth greet her? Will she judge her? Will she scold her? Will she send her away? Mary has no idea what’s coming but she’s bracing herself for the worst.

Elizabeth’s greeting is not what Mary expected at all. As soon as Mary enters her house, the child Elizabeth is carrying does a back flip in her tummy. And then the Holy Spirit takes over. Elizabeth says to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Can you imagine how relieved Mary is to hear these words? Elizabeth understands. She gets it. Mary’s going to be all right. If there had been any doubt in her mind about what is happening to her, Elizabeth confirms it for her. This isn’t just her imagination. Yes, God truly is doing an amazing thing through her.

Mary desperately needed to hear Elizabeth gushing with joy at the sight of her. For Mary hadn’t been barren like Elizabeth and all those familiar women from Israel’s past. This is uncharted territory. God is doing something he hasn’t done before. Old, barren Elizabeth and her child may be the culmination of God’s past faithfulness, but Mary and her child are God’s future. Mary is the beginning of a whole new work of God. God is starting over again. The child inside her is the new Israel, the new humanity.  

Mary is so filled with the love of God that she can’t contain it all; it spills out in a song. If you tend to think of her as a sweet, submissive little woman, you need to pay attention. Because this song ain’t no lullaby, folks.

It’s known as the Magnificat and it’s been sung in monasteries and churches all over the world for a couple thousand years. But it’s also been a controversial song, and if you’re really listening, you’ll understand why. This is radical stuff! There have been times and situations where it couldn’t be sung publicly because of its dangerous content. Back when India was under British rule, the Anglican bishop, William Temple, warned missionaries not to read the Magnificat in worship because it was so inflammatory that it might ignite a revolution!

Mary’s song begins innocently enough. It’s a song of praise to the God who has chosen her for this amazing task.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

Mary exults the God who would choose someone so unexpected, someone so lowly in worldly standing, for so great a mission. In a culture where women are regarded as inferior creatures, God chose her to be a partner in his new creation. She sings about the way God is working in her life, in particular. He takes lowly, little her and lifts her up to greatness. But then she moves from the particular to the universal. As God has been with her, so God will be with all people.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.”

Mary knows this isn’t all about her. She’s a part of something much larger than herself. God is up to so much more. All of history is opening up. Everything is changing. We call it the great reversal. It’s a common theme in the Scriptures and refers to the way God will make things right. This is the way things are when God has his way with us. This is the way things are in that reality Jesus inaugurates and names The Kingdom of God. It’s a place where the mountains are brought down low, and valleys are filled and the rough places made straight. It’s a place where the captives are set free, the blind see, and the lame walk. It’s the place Mary sings about where God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, where the powerful are brought down from their thrones, the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled, and the rich are sent away empty.

Now, does this sound like the sort of thing a poor young woman would sing when it looks like her life is about to go down the toilet? It certainly doesn’t sound like any Christmas song we might hear sung on the radio these days. But it was the very first Christmas song. And it teaches us that God doesn’t do what seems to be logical from our perspective. God turns everything upside down.

If you think you have God all figured out, you’d better expect to be surprised. If you think you’re right, you’d better get over it. Cuz you’re in for a fall. Hear Mary’s song and be reminded that wherever there are powerless people whose situations are defined by the world as impossible, God is at work!

Monday, December 17, 2012

The boy problem

In the wake of the horrific violence in Newtown, Connecticut, folks seem to be analyzing the event from every possible angle. Two tasks are of particular importance: finding the reason why this happened and doing what we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I have heard a lot of talk about increasing gun safety, as well as doing more to address the problems of mental illness. Both of these discussions are long overdue, and I’m glad we’re having them. But I hope we don’t fool ourselves into believing it’s that easy. This is a complex issue with many contributing factors.

We have been forced to face unspeakable events like the one in Newtown too many times. Yet, there is one aspect of these mass murders that I haven’t heard many people mention, and it concerns me. It may be so obvious that we are ignoring it, but the fact is, all of these events have one glaring commonality. They have all been committed by men -- in most cases, those who are barely men. We will not uncover the reasons for these senseless acts of violence until we are willing to dig deep and ask the larger question, “Why is this a boy problem?”

I am indebted to my friend Philip for raising my awareness of this. He also directed me to an article online that names the problem for what it is, “The Newtown Shooting and Why We Must Redefine Masculinity.” The author, Wendi Gilbert, points out how, of the 62 mass shootings in the United States over the past 30 years, all but one of them were committed by men. After citing these startling statistics, Ms. Gilbert quotes Jackson Katz, who wrote in the aftermath of the Columbine shootings: “accessibility of guns, the lack of parental supervision, the culture of peer-group exclusion, or the prevalence of media violence, all of these factors are of course relevant, but if they were the primary answers, then why are girls, who live in the same environment, not responding in the same way?”

Gilbert is involved in a film series called The Mask You Live In, which examines “what it means to be a man in our society and the extremes of masculinity imposed on our boys and men. It further uncovers how American culture reinforces a rigid code of conduct on boys that inhibits their capacity for empathy, stifles their emotional intelligence, limits their definition of success, and in some cases, leads to extreme acts of violence.”

Gilbert suggests it’s time to start teaching boys and young men that being emotional and empathetic are part of what it means to be a man. That sharing one’s feelings to sort out a problem is a masculine trait. She calls for “some new definitions of ‘manly’ so our boys can express and know their full selves, not just the culturally accepted ‘extremes’ that predominantly exist today.”

This rings true for me. Why do we continue to teach our boys that the way to prove you're a real man is by wielding power over other people? Why is it so widely acceptable for men to resolve problems with violence? Yes, males seem to have an innate desire to protect and defend those they love, and we can certainly admire that. But we need to make it clear that this is not the same thing as obliterating anyone who gets in your way. Why do so many of our boys and young men come to believe that masculinity and compassion are mutually exclusive? This twisted way of thinking scares me. 

I fear that with all of our discussions about how to address the shootings in Newtown, if we don’t include a deeper examination of how we teach boys to become real men in our culture, we are losing sight of the larger picture. This has to be a part of the conversation.

Friday, December 14, 2012


I have little to say about the horrific events that took place in an elementary school in Connecticut this morning. As much as we might like a reasonable explanation, there is none. And as much as we might like to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again, we know that’s not possible. Already, some are ranting about guns, while others are insisting that this has nothing to do with gun control. I have an opinion on that, but it doesn’t seem to matter very much right now.

Today I heard David Brooks suggest that the media should adopt a policy of not making the names of mass murderers known. Instead, we should attribute such deeds to anonymous perpetrators, thus denying them the notoriety they seek. We have yet to hear the name of who opened fire on innocent people in Newtown, but we will. We’ll hear all about him and his family, while the experts dissect and examine all the circumstances of his life that might have led to this.
With our very rational, western minds, we consider it our duty to understand everything that happens in this life. Not only do we have to understand  how a senseless tragedy can happen, from a human standpoint, but we even think we have to understand why it can happen, from a theological standpoint. Why is it so important to us that we can explain such events? Does this make it easier to accept that which is clearly unacceptable?

Our attempts to grasp what happened in Newtown are feeble at best. It is both foolhardy and arrogant to believe otherwise. Any explanation, no matter how well-reasoned, is ultimately futile. Nothing can be said that can make the day's tragic events anything other than what they are -- unfathomable. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Songs that catch in my throat

I can't imagine what my life would be like without hymns. They touch on everything that speaks to me. I love music, and singing, particularly in a crowd. And I am stimulated by theological ideas,  whether they echo my own or challenge my deepest convictions. But most of all, I cherish words that transcend their surface meaning and invite us into mystical truths. Hymnody does all of this for me.

I know my heart is captured when I'm singing one of those good old Lutheran hymns and the words catch in my throat. They are so big that I can’t get them out. In “For All the Saints”, when we sing about people who have died in the faith and cheer us on until we join them, the words “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine” aren’t easy to leave behind as I move on to the next phrase. Then I find that I can never sing the sixth stanza because I’m always fighting back the tears: But then there breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of glory passes on his way. Alleluia! Alleluia!

As I’ve gotten older, “How Firm a Foundation” seems to squeeze the sound from my vocal chords when I get to the fourth verse.  Throughout all their lifetime my people shall prove my sov’reign, eternal, unchangeable love; and then, when gray hairs shall their temples adorn, like lambs they shall still in my bosom be born. 

I’m not sure why certain hymns seem to affect me this way, but they do. I wish I could say that the words sneak up on me and catch me unawares while I’m singing, but that’s not usually the case. I know the words; I’ve sung them a bazillion times before, and I know what's coming. But I can’t help myself. They penetrate an unprotected place within me and all pretenses disappear.

There is a verse from an Advent hymn that disarms me like this. We sang it last Sunday and it's stuck to the inner walls of my skull like velcro: “Comfort, comfort now my people; tell of peace!” So says our God. Comfort those who sit in darkness mourning under sorrow’s load. To God’s people now proclaim that God’s pardon waits for them! Tell them that their war is over; God will reign in peace forever. The phrase where I lose it completely is, “Tell them that their war is over.” Whenever I hear those words, I can’t help taking them personally. Even though I’ve never served in the military, I think back on my life and, in many respects, it feels like I’ve been through a war. Some of this has been because of circumstances beyond my control, and some of it has been self-inflicted. But no matter the cause, engaging in war has been physically and emotionally exhausting. There is no greater peace than knowing that the war that has had such a toll on me in so many ways, is finally over. 

"Tell them that their war is over." How can hymn writers give us such huge words and expect us to sing them? Maybe that’s why hymns are meant to be sung by a community of people. While I’m struggling to sing, others are effortlessly blurting the words out. And then, while someone else is stuck on the first phrase of a hymn, I’m gliding through all the verses. 

Singing hymns takes the collective courage of a community. When I try to sing from the hymnal in the privacy of my home, I consistently get lost in the witness of the words. That’s a big reason why I gather regularly for worship with a faith community -- because I know I can count on them to sing hymns with me. And I need to sing hymns. 

Those annoying little bumps in the road

When I’m in the yard and a car slows down in front of my house, I look up to see who it is, assuming that they must be stopping to greet me. Since I moved to my new home on Arnold Drive, this happens all the time. In fact, every single car that goes by slows down in front of my house. And I always look up, wondering who it is. Even if it’s not a familiar face I see in the car, I wave. Usually, they wave back. Are people in my new neighborhood that much friendlier than they have been any other place I’ve lived? No. But this is the first place I’ve lived where there is a speed bump in the street directly in front of my house.

Speed bumps. Don’t you just love ‘em? All you want to do is get from point A to point B, and they throw these little obstacles in your path for no other reason than to slow you down. They’re so damn annoying. But, of course, there is a reason for them, because there is a reason why you need to slow down. This is a place where people are walking, and running, and playing. And for the safety of the people (and animals) on the street, those who are driving their cars need to be inconvenienced. Really, it’s a small price to pay when you look at it that way.

The street I live on, Arnold Drive, could easily become a cut-through street. You enter it on the south from Central Avenue, which is one of the main arteries in Charlotte, and the entrance to the east is from another busy street, Eastway Drive. But Arnold is not an easy way to cut through, by design. The road snakes around more than any street I’ve seen outside the mountains. And it is filled with speed bumps. 

It really is a lovely little road, and I enjoy the drive -- when I’m not in a hurry. But when I just want to get from one place to another as quickly as possible, I avoid it. I have several short cuts I can take to get home, where I miss the curves and most of the speed bumps, and I'm in my driveway before I know it, with no recollection of how I got there. Yet I have to admit that when I travel the long way down the street, and slow down for the countless speed bumps, making my way to the place where I live, I always remember my journey.

Maybe there is something to be said for the value of speed bumps to those of us who always seem to be in a hurry. Maybe those little annoyances in our path are there to remind us to ease up and pay attention to what’s happening around us.

Yeah, and maybe those speed bumps are a metaphor for other annoyances as well. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Somewhere else

In a few weeks, about a million people will cram themselves into a street on the isle of Manhattan to watch a ball drop down a flagpole. It’s not just a New York tradition; it also has become a global event, when an estimated billion people around the world hold their collective breath and cheer at the exact moment the clock strikes twelve in Times Square. Years ago, when I lived in another time zone, the absurdity of this celebration hit me. Although it was only 10:00 where I was, when the ball dropped, we all shouted, “Happy New Year!” The good part was that we got to go to bed earlier. But it was weird to realize that it didn’t matter where a person lived; the real New Year’s party was in New York City. The rest of us were just… somewhere else.

My generation was the first one to grow up in front of a television. Although TVs back in the 50s were nothing like they are today, there was always one in the house. And it was usually on. As a result, I grew up with a distorted view of reality. When my daughter Gretchen was little, I sensed the same thing was happening to her after she watched one too many old episodes of “Leave it to Beaver” and “I Love Lucy” and asked me if the world was black and white when I was a kid. It was a logical question. Especially if the world was happening on the TV screen and we were always… somewhere else.
In the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel account, he is careful to place his story within history by naming those who would have been famous to his readers. In chapter 1, the birth of John the Baptist is announced against the backdrop of history: “In the days of King Herod of Judea...” He does this again in chapter two with the birth narrative of Jesus: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” And then, we see Luke citing the historical context of his story a third time in as many chapters:  “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanius ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…” So, for Luke’s ancient audience, it would have been very clear when this story happened. It was when all those people were in power: Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanius, Annas, Caiaphas. They were very real people -- the ones everyone knew about. This seems to be Luke’s way of saying, here’s how you can place these events I’m telling you about in history.

But then again, maybe it was Luke’s way of saying, here’s the crazy way God does things. Because, as Luke tells the story, the word of God didn’t come to the governor in his palace, or to the high priest in the temple. The word of God came somewhere else. The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
Now, if you read the story of God’s relationship with his people in the Bible, the wilderness seems to be God’s favorite place to meet up with them. It happened that way for Moses and the children of Israel. It happened for Elijah and Jeremiah and Isaiah and many of the other prophets. It even happened for Jesus; just after he was baptized, he was tempted in the wilderness.

When we hear the word wilderness, we may think of a thick forest, like the place where we've hiked in the mountains. Sometimes the same word is translated in the Bible as desert or a deserted place. The Hebrew word midbar originally was a place of herding, and it came to mean that which is beyond. As in, beyond civilization: beyond organized settlements, beyond governmental control, beyond traditional norms. Any place beyond the immediate reach of the city could be considered wilderness. It is somewhere else.
Often, in the Bible, wilderness refers to more than just a physical place. The wilderness is a spiritual place – a place of testing and renewal. It is the experience of being in a place that’s outside the one where we normally hang out. It can be a place of grief and despair, or transition and anxiety. It is a place where what has worked for us in the past isn’t working any more, and we feel like we have nothing to grab onto. Wilderness is the perfect place for us to see God. It’s much like the stars that are always present, but it takes the darkness of night to see them. God is with us all along, but sometimes it takes being in the wilderness for us to see him.

We tend to avoid the wilderness because it’s a place of discomfort. We would rather be in the center of things than on the margins. We would rather be with the beautiful people, where life appears to be really happening, than where we really are, which is…  somewhere else. It reminds me of a quote I’ve grown to appreciate, from the historian Will Durant, in which he defines civilization. He writes: “Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.”
We get a distorted view of the world when we allow ourselves to believe that life is always happening where we aren’t. That everything of importance is being shown on CNN or Entertainment Tonight. Or what matters is what we read about it in the newspaper. Or that significant people and events are the ones they write about in history books. We may think that life, real life, is always beyond our reach and we’re stuck somewhere else.

But the message of Luke’s gospel is that God is up to something radical in this world. He calls it the Kingdom of God. You may not be able to see it. You may assume that it has nothing to do with you. You may think that it’s always in the place where you aren’t, while you’re living somewhere else. But somewhere else is exactly where you find it. Somewhere else. Standing behind the kitchen sink. Sitting in front of a computer screen. Stuck in the car pool lane at school. In a hospital bed. On the playground at recess.  At Toys R Us two weeks before Christmas. Carolling on the front porch of a shut-in. Gathered in a red brick church on The Plaza.... In a barren wilderness. In a smelly barn. On a wooden cross. That’s where God finds us. Always somewhere else.



Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A deprived childhood

When I was in seminary I had a roommate who came from a small town in Wisconsin. Our backgrounds were very different; I was a city girl and she grew up on a farm. I was amazed at the lack of wordly experiences she had been exposed to. Especially for someone who had been through college and was then in her mid-twenties.

Once we went to a movie together, and she told me that she had never been to a movie inside a theatre before. How was that possible? Another time, we had hot-fudge sundaes and she confessed that this was the first sundae she had ever eaten. This boggled my mind. Now, if she had grown on another planet, or even in another country, I could understand it. But she grew up in Wisconsin, for crying out loud -- a place that I had always considered to be part of the civilized world.
I started to feel superior to her. I had done so many things that she had never experienced and concluded that the poor thing had led a sheltered life and she was pretty clueless about what really mattered. 

On the day she told me she had never played mini-golf before, I couldn’t stand it any longer. “Are you serious? You’ve never played mini-golf?”
“Never.” She told me.

“Surely people in Wisconsin play mini-golf.”
“Not in the town I came from. We would have had to drive a hundred miles to do something like that and it wasn’t that important to me.”

“Well, you led a deprived childhood,” I told her. I said it light-heartedly, like it was a joke, but we both knew I wasn’t joking.
“Let me ask you something,” she said. “Have you ever walked into a barn where the floor is completely covered with fuzzy, yellow baby chicks, all peeping at once?”

Of course, she knew the answer to that. “No.”
“Well then, you led a deprived childhood,” she said.

This conversation happened decades ago and I still remember it from time to time: whenever I begin to feel superior to those whose experience doesn’t match my own, whenever I measure what matters through the lens of my own myopic perspective, whenever I’m reminded that those I think I have so much to teach actually have more to teach me.
Yeah, I’ve been to lots of indoor movies, and I’ve played mini-golf, and I’ve eaten more hot-fudge sundaes than I should have. But I’ve yet to walk into a barn carpeted in newborn chicks. And a part of me still feels that I’ve been deprived.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Educating Nancy

I’m thinking back on my formal education this morning and wondering what the point was. After high school, I spent about 14 additional years in school. For the past 26 years I’ve been able to put Ph.D. after my name, although I rarely do. It’s not necessary for my job, or my life either, for that matter. When I went for it I thought I would one day teach in a college or a seminary, but life got in the way and it didn’t happen. Now I don’t feel any calling whatsoever to the academic life, so what was the point?

Interestingly, after I successfully defended my dissertation and my advisor told me I was officially in the club, I felt a let-down. It seemed to prove little. If anything, a doctorate is an exercise in perseverance; there is always another hoop you have to jump through. When it was all over, if I had any pride over what I had accomplished, it was that I had hung in there and finished what I started. My Ph.D. does not leave me feeling superior to less schooled people. Not only is the sheepskin missing from my office wall, I couldn’t even tell you where it is. I actually am a little embarrassed by it because it seems so pretentious to me. Yes, for a short while, I knew a whole lot about a little. But now I am only too aware of the fact that I know very little about a whole lot.
Through the years, I have had this recurring dream where, for one reason or another, it’s discovered that I never actually fulfilled the requirements to graduate from high school. So, they take all my degrees away from me and I have to go back to finish. The problem is, I can’t pass any of the tests in order to graduate. This isn’t far from the truth. I suspect that I really wouldn’t be able to pass the standardized tests to graduate from high school these days. Especially the math.  Oy! Knowing that leaves me feeling like such a fraud. Yes, I’ve spent more years in school after high school than it takes most people to get to high school graduation. And, what was the point?

There is much about our educational process, in general, that leaves me asking this same question. For years we encouraged kids to go to college so they could get a good job someday; many recent college graduates are still waiting. But then, even when it happens according to plan, even when you find yourself in a position where you get paid more because you have a college degree, how much of what you learned while working toward that college degree do you actually use on your job? The percentage has to be miniscule. I sometimes wonder if we just reward people for playing the game and going along with the system.
What do I know? I took Latin in high school, and what was the point of that? At the time, the draw was that it would help you on your SAT’s because it’s such a great vocabulary-builder. What a crock! Since English borrows heavily from the Germanic and Romance Languages, any one of those is a great vocabulary-builder. And the thing about German or French is that you can actually go someplace where people speak the language! I can see absolutely no point in learning Latin or Klingon or any other  language that no living person on earth speaks.

Maybe I’m just a slacker. Back when I was in seminary we had to learn Greek so that we could read the New Testament in its original language. (By the way, it’s also a language that no one speaks anymore as modern Greek is only remotely akin to biblical Greek.) I went to classes and crammed it all in so I could meet the requirements. But that was over thirty years ago. I have colleagues who turn to their Greek text every week as they prepare their sermons, but not me. It’s been decades since I’ve cracked open my Greek New Testament. So, what was the point?

Was it all a waste of time? Although I’m sure I must have gained something from my schooling, I have trouble pinpointing what that something was. It certainly wasn’t information, because that seems to leave my head as quickly as it enters, which is why my best friend these days is someone named Google. If anything, I learned how to learn. I learned a way of thinking critically, with my mind open to new possibilities. And I learned a way of organizing and processing stuff that I might not have figured out otherwise. Or maybe I would have. I’ll never know, because I can’t go back and un-school myself.
Perhaps the best I can say is that my formal education hasn’t hurt me. Maybe it’s even made me a better person. But it seems that the most important things I’ve learned have had little to do with school. Things like forgiveness, and compassion, and joy. And I've learned about them in a multitude of ways: through my relationships with other people, through losses, by making mistakes, by venturing outside my comfort zone. Of course, that’s learning that continues to this day. There are no hoops to jump through, no papers to write, no exams to take at the end. Instead, this learning simply leads me into a deeper, fuller understanding of myself and the One who is Love. I don’t need a Ph.D. to get the point.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The end of the world as we know it

I never know whether to take biblical accounts of the end times literally. Will we wake up someday to see heaven and earth trembling and Jesus coming in the clouds? I’m open to that possibility. But I’m more open the possibility that the biblical description of the second coming is not to be taken literally. Which is right? I dunno.

A lot of people got it wrong the first time Jesus appeared. They studied the scriptures and they thought they had it all figured out, but their Messiah came to them in a way they hadn’t expected and they missed him completely. So, I’m always leery of anybody who thinks they have it all figured out. Even if that anybody happens to be me.

Jesus promised that he will inaugurate the end of the world as we know it. Maybe it really happens the way we Christians have been taught to expect it. Maybe Jesus came and lived on this earth until he went up into heaven. And now, maybe we’re all waiting around for him to come back. That would be kind of like what happens with my pets, Guido and Pooky, when I leave the house. They run to the picture window and watch me drive away and Pooky throws a conniption fit. Then they lie down and go to sleep, until they hear my car return to the driveway, at which time they jump up and run to greet me at the door. Maybe the second coming of Jesus works like that.

Or maybe it’s more like that sweet country song where the guy is leaving his kid to go on a trip and he assures the kid that not only is he going to return, but he’s already here. Maybe Jesus is already here. Maybe the second coming is a process. And maybe we’re all a part of it. That’s what makes the most sense to me. (Yes, I may very well be wrong, but if I am, God still loves me. And that’s how I’ve come to see it.)

What I can’t deny is that this world as we know it will end. Well, I shouldn’t say that I can’t deny it because, in fact, I spend a lot of time denying it. I get all caught up in my day-to-day life and lose sight of the larger picture. There’s a whole big universe out there of which I am just a teeny tiny speck. And there has been and will be a history of which my life occupies less than a nano-second. The astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson wrote, “If the events that span the 15 billion year timeline of the universe were laid along the length of a football field, then all of human history would span the thickness of a blade of grass in the end zone.” This first Sunday of Advent reminds us that we are but a small part of a cosmic drama that has a beginning and middle and an end.

 I suspect we’re missing the point if we think it all ends with Jesus riding into town on a white horse, whipping out his six-guns and restoring peace. Jesus doesn’t come to the rescue of this messed up world at the end and make everything right, because, for starters, Jesus never left this world to begin with. He never stopped being Emmanuel, “God with us.” His kingdom is always near, and his kingdom work continues to be ongoing.
Jesus himself likens the end of life as we know it to a fig tree. It doesn’t just lie dormant and then all of a sudden fruit appears. First, the tree dies. Then it buds. And it blossoms. And it grows. That’s the way God’s story unfolds. And it’s not just God’s story; it’s our story, too. We’re a part of it. The way that Jesus continues to remain present in the world today is through us.

Jesus promised that he will inaugurate the end of the world as we know it. Will it be a time of terror, the way we see the apocalypse depicted in the movies? I can’t bring myself to imagine that, not if God is really the God of love I have come to trust through the years. What I can imagine, though, is a time when things are made right and God’s peace, justice and love prevail. That’s my hope. I’m striving to wait for it patiently, but never passively. It’s my prayer that Jesus may inaugurate an end to this poor excuse for life that we've come to know and bring us to experience real life in its place. May that new life come, not despite us, but through us.

It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine... fine...
-- R.E.M.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Birthday poetry you won’t find on a Hallmark card

As a lover of poetry, I was delighted when several friends gifted me with poems on the occasion of my 60th birthday. My friend Sandy gave me a poem by Elioda Capuno. I keep coming back to it. Although it was not written for me in particular, it feels like it could have been. I’m blessed to have a friend who could see that. 

 A Poem for her 60th Birthday

she danced through life like a pro

undeterred by the thorns

neath her soles

she welcomed the pain

let it pierce and torment her

her steps are not perfect

she fumbled along the way

made mistakes and fell

but through each twist and turn

she gave her all

for a life that is not perfect

but worth it all

Then there was this Hafiz poem, given to me by Sandy’s husband, Philip. It’s very cool and is the best description of my relationship with God that I have ever read. Interestingly, it also uses the dancing metaphor for life.

The God Who Knows Only Four Words



Has known God,

Not the God of names,

Not the God of don’ts,

Not the God who ever does

Anything weird,

But the God who only knows four words

And keeps repeating them, saying:

“Come dance with Me.”



A couple weeks after my birthday I found these verses in my mailbox at church. Written by our resident poet at Holy Trinity, Dobbs, it is such a treasure to me.

Belated poem

for Nancy

As often as you are thought of

and have given

in music





and in silent attentiveness

or hot under the clerical collar righteous anger

but more than our shared portion of life

dipped in a poured confession

is your countering a profane mistake

by the five second rule

and laughter

It’s odd how Dobbs’ most vivid memory of me seems to be about something that I don’t recall. It doesn’t surprise me that I might do such a thing, so whether it happened or not, it’s true.

Poetry may be the best way to express the truth of our lives. Not the sort of thing that they’ll print in the local newspaper about you when you die, poetry runs deeper than the surface history of where you’ve been and what you’ve done. When I’m saying my final farewell to this earth, I think I might like to have a poem sum up the essence of my life instead of an obituary. Any one of these three would do nicely.





Monday, November 26, 2012

This Little Light of Mine: oblivious to the obvious

Nothing ruins a perfectly fine day like getting into my car and seeing one of those little lights appear on the dashboard. Particularly a little light I’ve never seen before. In my old VW Beetle they came on so often that I learned to ignore them. On the day my car finally died, my dashboard was lit up like a Christmas tree.

Yes, I realize that there may be a connection between my car's demise and its dashboard crying out to me in living color. So, this time around, with my new Honda Fit, I vowed to do better. Nonetheless, I’ve been driving around for a couple of months now with a (!) light telling me that one of my tires is low on air. I keep filling my tires, but can’t seem to get the (!) light to go away.
Well, last week a new light appeared. It said, “CRUISE MAIN.” I thought that was quite odd because it seemed like it must have something to do with my cruise control, but I don’t have cruise control on this car. I remember when they asked me if I wanted it, I said no. After driving from Charlotte to Cincinnati and back twice over the summer, I also remember regretting that decision. How could I have been so stupid?
Since this little light of mine couldn’t possibly have anything to do with my cruise control, I was baffled.

My friend Bruce is good with cars and often solves my car problems for me. So, he was sitting in the passenger seat when I noticed the “CRUISE MAIN” light was still on and I asked, “Do you have any idea what this means? Is it saying I need cruise maintenance? I don’t know why it would say that since I don’t have cruise control.”

Bruce reached in front of me and pressed a button in the center of my steering wheel. The light went out!
“How did you do that?” I asked.

“You had the cruise control on.”
“But I don’t have cruise control!”

Then I looked down at the steering wheel and there, as plain as day, was a button with the word “CRUISE” on it. Um. I guess I have cruise control.  
Now, I’ve had this car for almost a year. And in all that time, I never once noticed the buttons on my steering wheel. I had no idea they were there. Absolutely no idea.

Then there was the issue of adjusting the digital clock in my car when the time changed. I knew it had something to do with the radio and fiddled around with the buttons whenever I was stopped at a red light, trying every combination I could imagine. “It couldn’t possibly be this difficult,” I thought.
On Saturday I decided to break down and look it up in the instruction manual. It turns out there is supposed to be a button on the radio that has this word under it: “CLOCK.” Well, I looked at the radio, and, sure enough, there it was, C-L-O-C-K.  How had I missed it? Was it some kind of a trick the Japanese had invented to make us poor Americans think we’re going crazy? You know, like they hide the word “CLOCK” on the radio until someone turns to that page in the manual, and suddenly the word magically appears. Was it part of a Japanese conspiracy? 
I can tell you that every time I look at my steering wheel now, the cruise control buttons jump out at me, and when I look at the radio, all I can see is the word “CLOCK.” And it has got me to thinkin’ about how many other obvious things I may be oblivious to, things that are a lot more important than the buttons on my dashboard. Like, people who are hurting, or hungry, or desperate for a friend. I can look past them day after day; they are invisible to me. But then something happens to change that. I’ll have a conversation with them. I’ll read their story. Perhaps I’ll even experience some of their struggle in my own life. And all of a sudden, I see them so clearly that I wonder how I ever could have missed them.

These weeks before Christmas seem to do that for a lot of us, don’t they? We may be able to walk through the rest of the year with our compassion in check, but come December, our eyes are open to seeing the needs of others, really seeing them. 
It’s easy to focus on the commercialization of Christmas and expend our energy wringing our hands, whining, “Ain’t it awful.” There are examples-o-plenty in the world to provide us with ample material for holiday lyrics of lament. What we may miss are the acts of generosity and compassion going on around us, more than at any other time of the year. In fact, once you see it, the goodness of other people shows up in surprising places, over and over again.

Is there a connection between acts of generosity and compassion and the celebration of God’s incarnation on Earth? Certainly, you don’t have to be a Christian to be a loving person. But that’s not really the point, as I see it. It doesn’t have that much to do with who we are and what we do. It is about who God is and what God does. Through the lens of the incarnation, we see ourselves living in a world that God is a part of, a world that God loves. No amount of colored lights, Black Friday sales, or Christmas cheer can obscure it. When I’m no longer oblivious to this, it becomes so obvious to me that it’s all I can see.  


Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving with my mom

There was no Thanksgiving like a Thanksgiving at my mom’s house. We were planning to return to her place back in 1981 -- my husband Rich, daughter Gretchen, new baby Ben and me. It’s a long way from North Dakota to Ohio, so it wasn’t something we did every year. But it was our destination for that year. When November began, I was anxious for the days to pass quickly so that I would soon be home again. As it turned out, I ended up there much too soon.  

On November 7 I heard a voice on the other end of the telephone telling me that Mom had been taken to the hospital in the night and wasn’t doing well. So I hopped on the first plane with my two children. When both my brother and sister met me at the airport, I knew I was too late. So much for Thanksgiving.
That’s been a lot of Thanksgivings ago. And now, I have to say that every year on the fourth Thursday of November, no matter where I am, who I’m with, or what I’m doing, a big part of me is still back at 435 Edwards Avenue in Hamilton, Ohio.

I never realized how small the house was until I went away to college and came home again for the first time at Thanksgiving. As I stood in the foyer looking into the living room, I laughed aloud. What a teeny tiny little house! Just four rooms and a bath, with a converted attic upstairs. There was no dining room, although that never prevented us from having a huge Thanksgiving feast.
My mom had what was once a beautiful mahogany table with a stack of leafs we inserted for special occasions so that it stretched the entire length of the living room. It had endured a lot through the years; part of our holiday ritual was bringing the leafs out, which were in mint condition, and comparing them to the rest of the table, which looked like it had been used as a shield during the Revolutionary War.  Mom would always point this out to us. As I recall, she wasn’t complaining about it, just making an observation. In recent years, my sister Wendy has made that table her own and refinished it so that it is beautiful once again. I have had the honor of pulling my chair up under it again during Thanksgiving dinner at her home in Massachusetts, not far from the site of the original Thanksgiving feast.

My sister got the table. I got the platter. It’s a plain white platter that was only used at Thanksgiving to serve the turkey. Every time my mom pulled it out, she would say, “Be careful with this. It has been in my family for generations.” I’ve moved it from place to place for the past thirty years, and I’ve always been very careful with it. I have no idea how old it is, or if it’s worth more than a few dollars. But it is the one priceless item I own.
I know, in some families there is a kiddy table where all the little ones eat at Thanksgiving. Not so for us. We ALL sat at the table. There was usually a highchair or two, but we were all there. So, of course, a Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t complete without someone spilling a glass of something all over the table. And it was a table laden with food. My mom wouldn’t think of a serving buffet-style. The biggest challenge was passing the food from person to person. To this day, I can’t remember, is it left to right or right to left? Every year Mom had to give us directions.

There were always the usual Thanksgiving dishes: turkey, stuffing, giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, succotash, cranberry jelly, sweet potatoes, brown-and-serve rolls, and  pickles and olives that we pulled out of jars and carefully placed on a fancy plate only to return most of them to their jars after the meal. Then there was one other odd item that my mom insisted upon: mashed rutabaga. To my knowledge she was the only one in the family who ate it. Apparently it was something she grew up with and Thanksgiving wouldn’t have been Thanksgiving to her without it. Dessert had to be pumpkin pie with whipped topping in a spray can, of course. And all of this was served on her best dishes. 
Many of the serving dishes were silver and came from a time when my dad gave my mom a new one every year for their anniversary. I was the one who got to spread them with silver polish and clean them up. There was a silver pitcher, and a platter, and a gravy boat, and a bowl, and a big dish with a fancy lid. One year for Christmas Mom divvied them all up and gave them to us kids for Christmas as a memory of our father, who had died back in the 50s. I got the one with the fancy lid. Rarely do I use it; whenever I do, I have to get out the polish.

My family wasn’t much for drinking and I don’t ever recall having hard liquor in the house. But I do remember that on Thanksgiving we had wine with our meal. The kids had grape juice and the adults had near-grape juice from a guy named Mogen David. Somewhere in my mid teens I was allowed into the wine-drinking group on this once-a-year occasion. I remember thinking the stuff was god-awful and could hardly get it down. I still do, but for different reasons.
Throughout my sixty years of Thanksgivings, I have celebrated in a variety of settings: as a newlywed in Toronto, Canada, in my own home with husband and kids, with my in-laws eating from a T.V. table, at Denny’s because it was the only place we could find open after a football game in Detroit, in North Dakota at a church with other pastors from Ohio in exile, at my sister’s house, in a London pub with Gretchen and Ben, with my dear friends Donna and Jerry.  It’s all been good.  This year, I was completely alone on Thanksgiving. And I found myself going to the Thanksgivings I loved the most. There was no Thanksgiving like a Thanksgiving with my mom. I’m thankful for those memories.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wanna be happy?

Last night I watched the movie Happy. If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Everyone who longs to live life in all its fullness needs to see this movie. It takes a look at people around the world who are happy, from a man who pulls a rickshaw in India to a former debutante in Texas, and identifies what it is about their lives that contributes to their happiness.

This is one of those movies that doesn’t really teach me anything I didn’t know before, but the fact that it reinforces what I already know simply underscores the truth it speaks. Of course, its message stands in stark contrast to the values of the culture around us. We’re immersed in a world that tries to convince us happiness can be achieved by amassing a bunch of stuff and proving our worth by leaving our competitors in the dust. But there is no evidence to prove that this is true. Instead, once people have enough to meet their basic needs, having more has no link to happiness. The path to happiness is found through relationships with other people, through community and cooperation. It’s by living authentically and freely, without conforming to what everyone else expects of you. And, most notably, happiness comes to those who cultivate compassion, giving their lives for the sake of others.

This is not a “Christian” movie. But, as a Christian, I couldn’t help noticing how compatible its message is with the message of Jesus. Maybe it’s not the message many Christians have pinned on Jesus in an effort to defend their own life choices, but it is the message Jesus clearly lived and taught. And that’s what makes Jesus “the way, the truth, and the life.” Not because no one else has the truth, but because his message is, at its core, a truth that transcends all truths. It's the Jesus Way. That’s not to say that it is a way of life only found among Jesus' followers. Although this movie was full of stories about people who live the Jesus Way, many of them probably don't know a thing about Jesus. Jesus was all about leading people to life, real life in all its fullness, what this movie calls happiness. You don't have to be a follower of Jesus to find that happiness, although it is the certainly where the Jesus Way leads.

I think about the rich guy who comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to eternal life. This is not just about how to get to heaven someday after he dies. This is a present-tense conversation; it’s about how to experience the abundant life here and now. And Jesus has an answer. He tells the rich guy to sell what he has and give the money to the poor. That is, stop living for yourself and discover the happiness the compassionate life can bring you. In so many ways, Jesus taught this truth to his followers. “Blessed are the poor…” “Anyone who wants to save their life must first lose it…” “If anyone asks for your coat, give them you cloak as well…” It’s the truth of a man who allowed others to put him to death for the sake of compassion.

The great lie of capitalism is that you will be able to buy happiness. If we all suddenly decided that we were quite content with what we had and didn’t need any more stuff to be happy, would the economy collapse? I don’t know. But that's why our American self-identification as a Christian nation seems so ironic to me. If following the Jesus Way is what it means to be a Christian, we are most assuredly not a Christian nation.

Happy left me wondering why this is so hard for us. We all want to be happy. And yet, we continue to resist what makes us truly happy. Why?

Sunday, October 21, 2012


Ambition. Is it a good thing or a bad thing to have ambition? Ambition is a desire for personal achievement. What can be bad about that?

According to the dictionary, ambition is an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power. It could be a desire to achieve a goal for yourself. Like you want to become a college graduate, or a homeowner, or the President of the United States. What could be bad about that?

Ambition can also be defined as a desire for activity. When we say that someone has no ambition, it’s not a good thing. It’s the sort of thing we say when our grown kid moves back in with us and they spend all day lying around on the couch watching T.V. No, a lack of ambition is not good. Every parent wants an ambitious child: the kind of kid who has a fire lit underneath them, a go-getter, someone with dreams and aspirations. I mean, really, what could be bad about that?

Through the years, great thinkers have had a lot to say about ambition. Sigmund Freud once said that “the psychoanalysis of neurotics has taught us to recognize the intimate connection between wetting the bed and the character trait of ambition.” I guess Freud would conclude that ambition is a bad thing.

The tennis star Venus Williams quipped, “My ambition is to enjoy my life and to do exactly what I want to do. And I'll do that. I will be free.” That sounds like a good thing and it seems to have worked for her.

According to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Ambition is so powerful a passion in the human breast, that however high we reach we are never satisfied.” Um. That doesn’t sound so good.

And the spiritual giant, Thomas Merton, stated his opinion on ambition quite succinctly: “When ambition ends, happiness begins.” Like Longfellow, he equates ambition with a state of never being content, always longing for more. And when you put it that way, if nothing is ever enough, maybe ambition isn’t all that helpful to us in our quest for an abundant life. Of course, if there is a quest for the abundant life, you’d have to say that ambition is somehow involved.

Oy! Are you as confused as I am? Maybe the best we can say is that ambition is neither good nor bad. And it can sometimes be good, like when it gets you up off the couch. Or it can sometimes be bad, like when you’ll do anything (lie, cheat or steal) to get what you want.

When we’re raised in a culture like ours, one that’s very achievement-oriented, other people admire us when we’re ambitious. So when someone challenges us about it, it can be quite a slap in the face. We’re supposed to be praised for our ambition, not criticized for it, right? Well, despite that, I think we all know that there are some ambitions that we would be better off keeping to ourselves. Our ambitions can’t be too grand or other people will figure we must think too highly of ourselves. We don’t dare voice them out loud.

And that’s where James and John got into trouble. They had a grandiose ambition that they dared to voice out loud. Actually, it went further than that. They not only wanted something that was grande, but they also had the cojones to ask Jesus to do it for them. They come to Jesus and they ask, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Can you imagine? Well, instead of saying, “Are you crazy?!” Jesus plays along, and he comes back with, “Okay, so what is you want?” And here’s what they say: “We want to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Seriously? Is that all!?

Jesus must be ready to pull his hair out here. Not because James and John think they’re so special. And not because their ambition is so over-the-top. But because he just finished telling his disciples that “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” Jesus lays it all out for them. For the third time! And this is how James and John respond?

(Of course the other disciples are outraged as well. Probably because they wanted the choice spots when Jesus came into power for themselves and here James and John are calling first dibs.)

Were they really that dense? Was it selective hearing? How could Jesus tell them what was waiting for him, repeatedly, and have his disciples so completely miss what he was saying? Did they have no clue about what was happening around them? Did they not understand Jesus at all?

But they were just being ambitious, weren’t they? Is there something wrong with that? Well, in this case, it meant that they didn’t get who Jesus was. It meant they were missing out because they were stuck in a world where people aspire to be among the rich and powerful and Jesus was inviting them to something more. Jesus was inviting them to be a part of the Kingdom of God.

Their ambition was misplaced. Before they could really understand what Jesus had been trying to teach them, they had to see it. His greatest lesson of all would come to them when he hung on a cross, flanked on his right hand and his left hand -- by two thieves. Then they would get it. Finally, their ambition would become to live and die like the one who came not to be served, but to serve.

Michael W. Smith wrote a song about this called, “Secret Ambition.”

Young man up on the hillside
Teaching new ways
Each word winning them over
Each heart a kindled flame
Old men watch from the outside
Guarding their prey
Threatened by the voice of the paragon
Leading their lambs away
Leading them far away

Nobody knew His secret ambition
Nobody knew His claim to fame
He broke the old rules steeped in tradition
He tore the Holy Veil away
Questioning those in powerful position
Running to those who called His name
(But) Nobody knew His secret ambition
Was to give His life away